The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

New year. Old challenges.

Written by John R. Platt & Tara Lohan

168691309 4048180571871818 2861942263530178348 n

From plastic pollution to extreme weather and the extinction crisis, the year ahead promises tough fights, enormous challenges and critical opportunities

This story was originally published by The Revelator.

A new year brings with it new opportunities — and more of the same environmental threats from the previous 12 months.

But as we see year after year, many environmental issues tend to fly under the radar. Sure, climate change has started to get wider coverage from some newspapers and TV networks, but a lot of important stories still get missed (or dismissed by partisan outlets). Meanwhile the media devotes precious little space or airtime to stories about endangered species, environmental justice, pollution or sustainability.

Maybe that’s why these issues also get so little attention from legislators or the general public.

We can work to change that. Here are six of the biggest but most likely to be ignored environmental stories that The Revelator expects to follow in 2022.

Biden-watch and the specter of 2024

Following last year’s difficult election, we proclaimed 2021 the start of “the rebuilding years.”

That has proved somewhat true: Under President Biden, many of the previous administration’s antienvironmental initiatives and deregulatory efforts have fallen like dominoes.

But in other ways, Biden has not lived up to his campaign promises on environmental issues. Most notably, the administration licensed new fossil fuel drilling rights at a breakneck pace in 2021, in stark contrast to the candidate’s promises (and even some of his early symbolic actions, such as his executive order to make the U.S. government carbon-neutral by the year 2050).

Although the Beltway press doesn’t dig into this as often, all eyes should be on Biden’s next environmental moves. Can he deliver on the real threats facing the planet? Or will this administration become yet another failure for climate and biodiversity?

We’re guessing it will be a combination of both, with some clearcut victories in need of amplification and a few partial or flat-out failures.

The real proof in the political pudding will come this November, when the 2022 midterm election could create long-term challenges for the planet. The increasingly authoritarian Republican party is doing everything it can to game both the 2022 and 2024 elections in its favor: voter suppression, redistricting, removing bipartisan election officials, and even passing legislation to allow it to throw out election results the GOP doesn’t like, all while perpetuating the damaging Big Lie of election fraud to discredit the entire process.

The media, other legislators, activists and voters need to make sure this stays a key component of the stories we tell in the year(s) ahead. Because if Trump or someone like him ascends again to the presidency in 2024, or if the Republicans take over the House in 2022, then it’s one step closer to lights out for the planet.

Biodiversity in crisis

hellbenderhrA hellbender blends in perfectly against the rocks of a headwater stream. Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

This past year saw several big-picture studies identifying the extinction risk of large groups of species, and the news wasn’t good. One third of shark species, the studies found, are threatened, as are 30% of treeshalf of all turtles16% of dragonflies and damselflies30% of European birds and 16% of Australian birds.

And then, of course, there were the extinctions. (Hellbender Press covered the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker.)

Tragically, we don’t expect any of this to slow down in 2022. We’ve already heard from sources about potential extinction declarations that could come in the months ahead, mostly for species that haven’t been seen in several decades.

As usual, few of these get widely covered in the media. We’ll do our best to bring you this news, as well as conservation success stories that tend to get overlooked in our “if it bleeds, it leads” media environment.

The pandemic will also continue to affect the conservation movement, and we need to keep these issues in the public eye. The past two years have seen a lot less on-the-ground research around the world, although some scientists have started to break through the need to stay at home and gotten out into the field.

Will the same thing happen with important international discussions? More than 190 nations are currently scheduled to meet in April to discuss global agreements to protect nature and biodiversity. The arrival of the omicron variant — one more reminder that vaccines still haven’t been equitably distributed around the world — has now put that meeting, and perhaps others like it, in jeopardy.

But life finds a way. Even if we can’t do work in nature or in person, there’s always Zoom. The work that concluded sharks’ extinction risk wouldn’t have been possible without today’s online communication tools. These types of events don’t generate as much media attention, but they will generate stories worth telling if we’re open to listening.

A plastic mess

Will this be the year the United States finally hears the message about the dangers of plastic pollution?

Let’s hope so, because a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, published in December, revealed that the United States is a top contributor to the problem. According to the report, U.S. residents generated more plastic waste in 2016 than any other country — a staggering 42 million metric tons. That’s more than all the European Union and twice that of China.

The report, which was mandated by Congress, recommends the United States develop a comprehensive policy to reduce plastic waste in the environment. Of course legislators could get a jump on that if Congress passed the Break Free From Plastic Act introduced last March.

And there’s another strategy, too — turning off the tap on plastic production by halting the extraction of fossil fuels that provide plastic feedstocks and stopping the build out of massive new petrochemical facilities. The Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of an environmental review of one such project now — a $9 billion project by Formosa Plastics in St. James Parish, Louisiana. That could set the stage for a lot of future progress.

No matter what happens, the focus needs to remain on this issue, which not only poisons communities but exacerbates the climate crisis. It’s time for leadership, not just in this country, but around the world.

Expect extremes

There should be nothing surprising anymore about the fact that we’re in for a wild weather ride every year now, as climate change turns up the heat and supercharges many storms and wildfires.

From 1980-2020 the United States had on average about seven weather and climate events that topped $1 billion each. But from 2016-2020 that average has shot up to 16.

Researchers are increasingly able to show the fingerprints of climate change on specific weather events. A Climate Brief investigation into the field of “extreme event attribution,” pioneered by scientists at World Weather Attribution, showed that climate change made 70 percent of 405 extreme weather events either more likely or more severe. The media needs to make this connection more often.

So, we know it’s coming. Now what will we do about it? Expect to see more stories about climate change resilience and how states will spend the $50 billion earmarked to protect against droughts, heat and floods in the new infrastructure bill. And hopefully we’ll see ample coverage of how this money gets to the communities that need it the most.

Doing Renewables Right

We’re off and running — or at least jogging — on the race to decarbonize. Initial projections show that in 2022 the United States could see a record amount of new wind energy (27 gigawatts) coming online, as well as twice as much utility-scale solar (44 gigawatts) compared to last year, and six times as much energy storage (8 gigawatts).

Meanwhile 28 percent of U.S. coal plants are projected to close by 2035.

 But don’t hold on too tightly to those projections for renewables. Rising costs and supply-chain problems could slow or halt some planned projects. On the other hand, renewables could get a big boost if Congress manages to passes the Build Back Better bill.

Ramping renewables will come with a few other challenges, too, that we should keep our eyes on: Can raw materials like lithium and cobalt be sourced without endangering human rights or terrestrial and marine ecosystems? Can projects be sited and managed in ways that don’t exacerbate biodiversity concerns? Can we ensure that poor communities and communities of color that have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel economy be the first beneficiaries in the energy transition and leaders in the process? These are the types of tough questions everyone should start asking as we make this vitally important transition.

Getting Direct

Maket Square demonstration —TVA tower in the backgroundProtestors chant and wave signs urging TVA to commit to a fossil fuel-free future during a protest in downtown Knoxville this summer. Courtesy Amy Rawe/Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Even amidst the pandemic, dedicated environmental activists refused to let their voices be silenced.

We’ve seen a dramatic rise in direct action over the past few months, with climate protestors temporarily disrupting Australia’s largest coal port by scaling and then suspending themselves from massive machinery, going on a very public 14-day hunger strikedefending a sacred waterway in British Columbia, protesting for voting rights and a whole lot more.

And they’re just warming up. The Extinction Rebellion climate protest group has promised a return to direct action now that vaccination rates have increased — indeed, they’ve been quite active the past few weeks.

The protests and disruptions reflect societal anger at corporate and government resistance to reform. They present the world with dramatic images and powerful messages, many of which get otherwise ignored by the media and legislatures. These events might not achieve much individually, but collectively, given time, they work.

That’s also why such activism is so risky. Last month Chilean activist Javiera Rojas was murdered, the latest in an ever-increasing string of deaths and other violent attacks committed against environmental defenders around the world.

These are the stories we all need to watch — and the messages we should never forget.

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Related items

  • Enviros to TVA: Retire the fossil-fuel pacifier
    in News

    Cumberland FPTVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville is the subject of a suit filed by environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center.  Tennessee Valley Authority 

    SELC, others file suit in hopes of dissuading TVA from future fossil options

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CLARKSVILLE — On behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked TVA to prepare a supplemental environmental statement to address concerns with TVA’s draft environmental impact statement, which details the agency’s plans to retire the Cumberland Fossil Plant.

    The Cumberland Fossil Plant, about 22 miles southwest of Clarksville, is TVA’s largest coal-fired power station and was built between 1968 and 1973. TVA plans to retire each unit of the two-unit, coal-fired steam-generation plant separately: one unit no later than 2030, and the second unit no later than 2033. But the plant will need to be replaced, and TVA is currently considering three alternatives to fossil fuel, including natural gas and solar energy, according to its draft EIS.

    (Tennessee Valley Authority already plans to close down the Knoxville-area Bull Run fossil plant in Claxton next year).

  • There’s a whole world in the dirt beneath your feet
    in News
    Dust bowl soilThe Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted in the displacement of tons of soil in the midst of a drought similar to the one that grips the Southwest today. Library of Congress

    Dirt is far from just dirt. It’s a foundation for life.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Look down. You may not see the soil beneath your feet as teeming with life, but it is.

    Better scientific tools are helping us understand that dirt isn’t just dirt. Life in the soil includes microbes like bacteria and fungi; invertebrates such as earthworms and nematodes; plant roots; and even mammals like gophers and badgers who spend part of their time below ground.

    It’s commonly said that a quarter of all the planet’s biodiversity lives in the soil, but that’s likely a vast understatement. Many species that reside there, particularly microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protists, aren’t yet known to science.

  • Skunked: Collapsing fisheries pose a dire threat to the planet
    in News

    Chilean purse seineA purse seine on a Chilean fishing vessel captures tons of mackerel. NOAA

    We need to navigate to where fish sticks in your mind

    You can read Coty Perry’s full report on overfishing at

    When you hear about sustainability, one thing that often flies under the finder is the topic of overfishing. Many will say that overfishing is a natural response to the need for more fish, but it runs much deeper than that.

    The goal of this article is not to shame any specific industry, country or company. The goal is to shine light on an issue I believe is highly under-reported by mainstream media.

  • Monarch butterflies, an ephemeral but regular glimpse of beauty, are fluttering toward extinction
    in News

     Bales Monarch on coneflowerA monarch butterfly, recently declared endangered despite decades of conservation, is seen atop a coneflower. Stephen Lyn Bales

    Dramatic monarch declines mean the bell tolls for we

    KNOXVILLE — Monarch butterflies are ephemeral by nature. The orange and black dalliances that flitter through our lives, our yards, and our countryside like motes of dust are here one minute and gone the next. We pause for a few seconds to watch the “flutter-bys” and then move on.

    For about all of the Lepidopteran family, where they come from, where they go, their raison d'être, we don’t ask. They are winged wisps that pass through our busy lives. But that is not true with this orange and black butterfly, named to honor King William III of England, the Prince of Orange. But two people did ask.

    Norah and Fred Urquhart lived in Southern Canada and in the late 1930s they noticed that the monarch butterflies seemed to all be fluttering south this time of the year. Could they possibly be migrating and if so, where did they go? The notion that a butterfly might migrate south for the winter seemed hard to fathom. Yes, broad-winged hawks migrate. But a flimsy butterfly?

  • Dems pass huge climate bill assailed by some as another fossil energy sop
    in News

    5 July 2022 US Significant Climate Events Map

    Record-setting bill will fund extensive efforts to address climate change, but the sausage-making deal is decried by some as a ‘suicide pact’

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate, along party lines, passed a sweeping energy, health care, climate and tax package Sunday afternoon, following an overnight marathon of votes that resulted in just a handful of notable changes to the legislation.

    The 755-page bill was passed after Vice President Kamala Harris broke a 50-50 tie in the evenly divided Senate. It now heads to the House, where Democratic leaders have announced they will take it up on Friday.

    At last, we have arrived,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.  Democratic senators broke out into applause as Harris announced passage of the bill, expected to total more than $700 billion.

    Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he dedicated the measure to young Americans who have pushed and protested for the Senate to take action on climate change. 

  • Congo retreats from climate commitments to fuel its fossil energy sector
    NYT: Why should we care when you built your world with fossil fuels?

    The government of Congo is recruiting fossil-fuel extractors to suck oil from beneath tropical forest and bog ecosystems that rival the Amazon in their role as carbon sinks.

    Opponents say it’s another step in knocking over the dominoes of climate renewal as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to roil energy markets and threaten international commitments to addressing climate change.

    “The oil and gas blocks, which will be auctioned in late July, extend into Virunga National Park, the world’s most important gorilla sanctuary, as well as tropical peatlands that store vast amounts of carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and from contributing to global warming,” according to the New York Times.

    Leaders say the global energy paradigm has shifted to the point it makes little sense to prioritize the natural environment over boosting the economy of an impoverished nation.

    According to NYT: “That’s our priority,” Mr. Mpanu said, in an interview last week. “Our priority is not to save the planet.”

  • Thinking Globally: Many places suffer even worse inflation!
    in News

    MOTHER EARTH — Scarcity of food, lack of safety nets and paucity of solidarity lead to famine. 12-minute video raises awareness of how global crises combine with intricate national and international issues to precipitate local predicament.

  • The South’s hidden climate threat
    in News

    Spreading avens in bloom 9406109069Spreading avens are seen in bloom in the Appalachians. The endangered long-stemmed perennials survive in higher mountain elevations but their lack of space to move higher in elevation in times of climate change and warming further threaten the plant.  USFWS

    It’s not just the coastlines that are recording climate change. Even the mountains of North Carolina are feeling the heat — including some endangered plants

    “Atlanta reporter Dan Chapman retraced John Muir’s 1867 trek through the South, including the naturalist’s troubling legacy, to reveal environmental damage and loss that’s been largely overlooked.” This is an excerpt published by The Revelator from his book, A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey Through an Endangered Land.

    BOONE — It’s a wonder anything survives the ice, snow, and winds that pummel the ridge, let alone the delicate-seeming yellow flowers known as spreading avens.

    The lovely, long-stemmed perennials are exceedingly rare, officially listed as endangered, and found only in the intemperate highlands of North Carolina and Tennessee. They sprout from shallow acidic soils underlying craggy rock faces and grassy heath balds. At times blasted with full sun, but mostly shrouded in mist, the avens are survivors, Ice Age throwbacks that refuse to die. Geum radiatum is only known to exist in fourteen places, including hard-to-find alpine redoubts reached via deer trail or brambly bushwhacking.

  • Hot weather doesn’t always equal evidence of climate change, but the puzzle is almost complete
    in News

    heat photoThomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

    TVA sets record power day for June as region swelters and common sense degrades

    This story was originally published by Hard Knox Wire.

    KNOXVILLE — City residents this week joined scores of others around the world — from the Southwest United States to the Indian subcontinent — sweltering through late spring with eyes toward a summer that portends to be very hot.

    Whether directly attributed to climate change or not, the heat waves are causing untold misery in locations across the Northern Hemisphere, straining power grids to the brink and causing a sharp rise in heat-related illnesses. 

    Knoxville Utilities Board asked this week that consumers curtail their electricity use by setting their thermostats a little higher and holding off until night on energy-sucking tasks like doing laundry or running the dishwasher. That request was met in many cases with derision and unsubstantiated claims that charging electric vehicles had overburdened energy infrastructure.

    So exactly how hot is it in East Tennessee and how bad is it going to get?

  • In Ukraine, fear of nuclear plants riven by Russia cuts to the core
    in News

    Chernobyl Anniversary Image 95ygu3xoy2ou9ehve2dk952The Chornobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine is seen in 1986 after a fire devastated the plant and led to radiation emissions that spread across the European continent. United Nations

    36 years after the Chornobyl crisis, Ukraine presents a test for nuclear reactor survivability

    This story was originally published in The Revelator.

    CHORNOBYL, UKRAINE — It took less than a minute after an unexpected power surge for one of the nuclear reactors at Chornobyl (Chernobyl in the Russian spelling) to explode on April 26, 1986, ripping the roof off and spewing dangerous toxins into the air.

    The event, and emergency cleanup that followed, left 30 workers dead, thousands exposed to cancer-causing nuclear material and later death, and a legacy of radiation. Now, 36 years later and with war raging, Ukraine is desperate to prevent another nuclear disaster.

    Nuclear reactors generate more than half of the country’s power. Ukraine is the first country with such a large and established nuclear energy program to experience war, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.